Keeping Your Website on the Good Side of the Copyright Law

What You Need to Know to Keep Your Hotel’s Image Strategy in the Good Graces of Today’s Intellectual Property Laws

We’ve entered the final stretch of 2015 and it should come as no surprise the employment of a strong, clear, and consistent image strategy is crucial for optimizing your website for conversions. The inclusion of authentic, high-quality images is proven to lower bounce rates, improve user engagement, and increase online bookings for your hotel. On the flipside, studies show unrealistic, outdated, and glaringly-staged stock photography can actually deter potential guests and lower your conversion rates. The solution seems relatively obvious, right? Just dump your tired, corny stock images, upload some killer new photography (after they have been optimized for mobile, site speed, and search, of course), and let the endless flow of money roll on in.

What’s that you say? My plan sounds dubiously simple? Well, you got me. Busted.

In a perfect world, rolling out that shiny, new image strategy could be that easy, but, alas, this world is full of crooks, cheats, scoundrels, and scammers. In response, Congress has enacted a series of copyright laws protecting intellectual properties (for the sake of today’s discussion, images) and places limitations on outside parties from using, distributing, or altering any creator’s work in any fashion not in compliance with the (admittedly ambiguous) guidelines of fair use.

In today’s increasingly complicated digital world, one must take every precaution to avoid the expensive, inconvenient, and time consuming consequences of copyright infringement. In fact, you may already be guilty and not even know it.

A (very, very, very) Brief Overview of American Copyright

In the Constitution of the United States, our forefathers laid the groundwork that would prompt centuries of American copyright law by granting Congress the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. To encourage the sharing of new ideas and the production of new works, Congress passed America’s earliest copyright laws in 1790, which protected registered works from unlicensed reproduction and distribution. However, as time copyright law morphed over the years, legislation saw an increasingly emphasis on compensation of the author and on limiting the the ability of other parties to use copyrighted works.

Currently, accordingly to the United States Copyright Office, the stated intent of copyright law declares “an author of a work may reap the fruits of his or her intellectual creativity for a limited period of time.” In other words, a writer, director, songwriter, mapmaker, coder, photographer, playwright, sculptor, storyteller, or any other creator is entitled the exclusive right, for a fixed period of time, to copy his or her own work for the financial and creative benefit of his or her family. Initially, this applied to books, maps, and charts, but as technologies evolved, the laws were repeatedly amended to include photography, recorded music, movies, and a plethora of other media under the protection of copyright law. Furthermore, the length of time an individual work is eligible to be protected under copyright has been extended over and again since 1831.

In addition, copyright law grants the right to produce derivatives of existing works if the intent falls within the guidelines of fair use. In order for the use of a work to be categorized as fair use, it must be a transformative reproduction that criticises, parodies, or comments upon the original work. Since the vast majority of hotel websites do not transform existing images for these purposes, we’ll assume fair use is not applicable to this particular discussion.

Furthermore, over the course of the last three centuries, copyright laws have evolved alongside (or slightly behind) the countless innovations in media and technology. In today’s Internet age, the already-enigmatic world of intellectual properties and usage rights have become increasingly difficult to decipher. In 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which outlines when copying, altering, or distributing a work is permissible and determines which parties are to be held accountable in the event of use without consent. The law states online service providers are ultimately liable for the distribution of infringing content, but can evade legal or monetary consequences by immediately blocking or removing the materials in question, regardless of the legitimacy of the takedown notice.

As you can see, this country’s history of copyright legislation is long and storied. There are a-lot-of-ins, a-lot-of-outs, a-lot-of-what-have-yous, so let’s suffice it to say if you didn’t take the picture, you probably don’t own it.

In English, Please

Alright, that’s admittedly abstract. Let’s take a look at what this means for your hotel.

You’re super excited for your marketing team’s newest, multi-channel project, which will tie your hotel to your town’s most beloved local attraction. The copywriter drafted some top-notch content for the landing page, the SEO team developed a well-orchestrated plan to drive traffic to your website, the social media team devised a great campaign to engage fans, and, after lots of research, you’ve found the perfect image that will turn your website visitors into hotel guests. You can already see the dollar signs.

But then reality sets in: you don’t own that image. You try to justify it in your head, but the truth is, the mere fact the photograph can be found online does not mean it can be reused or repurposed by any interested party. Furthermore, the absence of a watermark or copyright symbol does not exempt the file from copyright protection. And, of course, the fact competing hoteliers are lifting images definitely doesn’t make it okay. In fact, even if you obliviously and accidentally included the image on your website, you are liable for copyright infringement (and this includes photos posted by previous vendors!).In the wacky world of copyright, there are no excuses, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“Okay, Don,” you think to yourself, “This is pretty useful information, but what happens if I do use a photography without the correct permissions or licenses? Or, what if I’ve used an image in the past – long before I read this handy cautionary tale?”

Well, friend, I’m glad you asked because a few different scenarios could play out. In the best case scenario, nobody would ever know and you’d be right as rain (though you should still take down infringing image). However, if things play out differently, you may be looking at some supremely unpleasant consequences.

First, the owner of the image could file a DMCA Takedown notice, and you will receive a letter from your Internet service provider or a third-party copyright enforcer requesting the stolen materials be removed immediately. If you’re lucky, you will not receive a monetary penalty. However, the owner of the image (who may be an individual artists or from a well-known stock photo agency) could also demand compensation for the use of the image. Commonly, the accused party will ultimately settle out of court to avoid the costly legal fees and time required to dispute the claim in court. Furthermore, if there is strong evidence you have benefitted financially from your use of the copyrighted material, you may be requested to pay up to $30,000 of those profits to the offended party. Ouch.

Let’s take a look at a real-world situation that transpired this past September. One of Blue Magnet’s hotel partners recently informed their diligent account manager about a takedown notice they received regarding an image on their old website created and managed by a previous vendor. The photograph in question depicts a picturesque redwood forest and belongs to a well-known stock photography library. At a glance, this appeared to be a huge misunderstanding; this photograph is nowhere to be seen on the website and Blue Magnet has neither published this image nor any derivatives thereof. “This can’t possibly be true,” the hotelier thought, “that website no longer exists and we severed ties with the agency that built the site months and months ago!” But alas, the deed had been done and our Blue Magneteer had the unenviable responsibility of bearing the bad news: neither blissful ignorance nor the prior removal of the image could exempt the hotel from the required $740 fee required to repay the company for licensing to an infringing photo they didn’t know they had.

How to Ensure Your Hotel is Playing By the Copyright Rules

Now that we’ve gotten the (admittedly necessary) scaremongering out of the way, let’s take a look at how you can live free and clean in the world of digital copyright. And yes, you still might be able to use the image that will undoubtedly lay the golden egg.

Ask and You Shall (May) Receive

It’s easy to lose our manners as we conduct our lives 140 characters at a time, and sometimes we forget about the three magic words. But when it comes acquiring permissions to use include those incredible images on your website, you might not need much more than a few “pleases”, a couple of “thanks yous”, and a some basic information about your intent. Simply put, if you ask to use someone’s copyrighted image, it’s extremely plausible you will receive a resounding “yes!”.

To acquire usage permissions for photography online, you’ll need express written consent from the owner of the image. To start, take a look at the website’s terms and conditions, which can typically be found in the footer. Here, you’ll want to confirm all on-site materials are protected by copyright and to identify the owner(s) of the content. This will help you to determine who you should contact to request usage permissions and what you should ask.

For a blog or a smaller website, you can usually find a form or email address on the contact page to directly contact the business owner. That’s always a good place to start. Be sure to introduce yourself, state you’re interested in using some of the website’s photography, include a link the site (or specific landing page, if it’s live) on which you’d like to use the image, and say you’d like to discuss the topic further. If you’re reaching out to a larger business or a company managing their own public relations, you very well may want to start by speaking with their marketing manager.

When conducting your photography permissions correspondences, be as specific as possible. First, confirm the person with whom you’re communicate is authorized to give you usage rights. After you’ve verified you’re speaking with the correct person, be sure to include links to the images you wish to use and include the landing page (or domain) on which you would like to use them. In addition, offering to add photography credits (or even a website link) can also be useful in conveying a clear request. This specificity ensures concrete documentation of your intents and of the granted permissions in the event any questions should arise in the future.

At this point, you can cross your fingers and hope for the best. In my experience, the vast majority of people responding to this type of outreach are very happy to permit photography usage. Oftentimes, they’ll even send high-resolution versions of your requested images or a variety of promotional images to also use. Just make sure all of this communication is documented in a single email thread so it can be referenced if ever necessary.

In the event you do not hear back, remember to be diligent (but courteous) in your follow up requests; people are busy and sometimes miss emails. If you don’t hear back from a content owner – or if the content owner denies your request – it may be time to look at alternative options.

A Few Do’s and Don’ts Regarding Stock Photography

In a perfect world, acquiring usage rights would be quick, easy, and painless. Problematically, owners of various works across the Internet can be non-responsive, or worse, unwilling to grant usage permissions. Sometimes, after repeated outreach, it becomes abundantly clear gaining permissions to legally use that particular image is not going to happen. In situations like this, the use of stock photography becomes an increasingly attractive back up plan. To be clear, not all stock photos are bad, and, with the correct licences, you can employ some crafty tactics to lend the stock images a more natural, homegrown feel.

A Word or Two (or more) About Stock Photo Licences

Before you go download-crazy, you’ll need to review the terms and licenses employed by your preferred stock photo vendor.

As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to first determine if the works are royalty-free or rights managed; understanding this important differentiation dictates where and when you can use an image, and if you will need to pay for repeated usage. Royalty-free images allow a party to purchase a given image once and to use the work on numerous projects without having to re-purchase the licensing over and again. The rights managed licence permits a one-time use of a work with the option of purchasing additional licensing for multiple uses.

Secondly, you’ll want to know if a given work is intended for creative or editorial use. Understanding the intended use will inform you how you can use a specific image within the good graces of copyright law. Works intended for creative use can be altered and used for promotional and commercial purposes. On the other hand, editorial photography is intended for educational and informational applications, such as an objective news article. Using editorial photography to endorse or promote a for-profit business (ie. your hotel) is strictly prohibited and can quickly put you on the wrong side of the law. Simply put, when browsing through your preferred stock photo library for your hotel website, be sure you’re looking only at creative images.

Making Stock Photography Work

In the event you cannot obtain permissions for your preferred images, you may find yourself stuck with your stale library of dull stock photos. This may sound like a bonafide bummer, but fret no more! There are a number of tactics you can employ to add character and freshness to your images to complement the material on your page.

First, you can always touch up the brightness and contrast of your images to mimic the overall design of your website. However, when touching up images, remember to be subtle, tasteful, and professional; overdoing the filters can come across as awkward or unnatural.
Text overlays can also work in your favor. Adding a snippet of copy to your image can help mitigate the stockiness and can efficiently convey useful information to your visitors. Tools like Canva and PhotoShop turn this into easy work, especially if you have a template saved and ready to go. However, this copy may not be easily readable by search engine robots; from an SEO perspective, adding copy to your images via the CSS is the optimal method.

Simply cropping your images in a strategic fashion can also help you to make your stock photos work to your benefit. By removing erroneous elements of particularly stock-y ones, you can help the image to appear more natural. Thoughtfully cropping your stock photos can also allow you to include only the aspects relevant and beneficial for a user’s on-page experience.

Finally, juxtaposing stock photos with images you own can also mitigate the stockiness of a photo. For example, you can painlessly add a stock photo into a simple grid-style Canva collage with three or four images of your property, and the hotel photographs will naturally lend authenticity to the stock photo. Furthermore, by placing your stock photo and your hotel photo side-by-side in one jpeg, you can also better fill the on-page space without allowing your stock photo to dominate the screen.

Don’t Forget About the CVB

Is your hotel an official member of the local convention and visitor bureau or chamber of commerce? Participation in these types of organizations can yield some seriously great perks and often includes access to use their libraries of images, videos, logos, and other digital assets. If your hotel is a due-paying member, I highly recommend looking into what kind of usage permissions your hotel has been granted. Membership dues for CVB’s can be quite expensive and taking advantage of the organization’s benefits is a great way to maximize your ROI. Once you’ve confirmed your hotel’s membership allows you to use bureau-owned materials, go to town! With your newfound wealth of authentic, high-resolution, and locally-oriented photography, you’ll be able to remove stock photos, discard low-quality images,and optimize your image strategy for maximum engagement on-site.

A Quick Note Regarding the Public Domain and the Creative Commons

In addition to the strict copyright laws protecting the works of individual owners and artists, other copyright licenses exist granting much more liberal opportunities for usage. First, works in the public domain contain no copyright restrictions and can be used by any party for any purpose. To facilitate this, the public domain is primarily comprised of works whose copyright has expired and not been extended. For example the tragedies of Shakespeare and songs like “Waltzing Matilda” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” are not protected by copyright law and can be reproduced, distributed, and reappropriated for any use imaginable.

Unfortunately for your hotel website’s image strategy, most photographs in the public domain may not contain the flashy, high-resolution, full-color aesthetic you might be looking for (though it’s definitely worth checking). American copyright laws have been adjusted over and again, and works may not fall into the public domain until well over a hundred years after their creation. Depending upon the type of work and when it was published, copyright protection is granted for 70 years (or more) following the death of its creator, or 95 years from the date of publication. Like I mentioned at the onset, copyright protection can get very confusing, and it’s always advisable to double check if a given image belongs to a private author. In fact, if a work was produced after 1923, there is no guarantee it’s not protected by copyright.

The Creative Commons

The Creative Commons is a relatively new form on copyright licensing allowing creators to specify the exact usage permission parameters for their own works. For example, under the Creative Commons, the creator of a work can clearly note whether a work can be distributed, adapted, or used for commercial purposes. In addition, the creator can also specify if the use of a given work requires attribution. By clearly detailing these usage guidelines, the creative commons allows citizens of the Internet to use CC0 works without express, written permissions and encourages the conscientious use of various works.

In theory, this sounds pretty amazing: a generous and democratic cohort of artists, writers, coders, and photographers have freely contribute their works for all to use. Having a wealth of free, high-quality, and relevant photography could prove to be massively beneficial in optimizing your website’s image strategy. Problematically, an image may exist in the creative commons today may fall under the protection of traditional copyright tomorrow. For example, photo sharing sites such as Flickr allow its users to update and change the copyright licenses of their uploaded photos. If a Flickr user uploads a CC0 photo to the website (which would be permissible by the photo’s license), the uploader could alter the copyright permissions and become the rightful owner of the photo. Therefore, if you decided to include a creative commons photo on your website, please proceed with caution. There is no guarantee the image will not fall under more traditional copyright protection, which, without your knowledge, could put you on the wrong side of the law.

Sleeping Soundly in the Increasingly Confusing Age of Digital Copyright

The world of copyright can feel like a strange, flummoxing, and seemingly-unnavigable labyrinth (heck, that’s why copyright lawyers own such fancy cars), but this conversation is not intended as an exercise in scaremongering. With a base knowledge of copyright law and an ongoing understanding on what constitutes someone else’s intellectual property, you can cast aside your copyright worries and woe. With a critical eye and the right tools, you can make more informed decisions about how to best optimize your hotel’s website. You are the master of your domain.

Simply keeping these basic tenets in mind as you manage your website will help you to identify the sources of your website’s images and prevent the accidental theft of copyrighted materials. Furthermore, if you’d like to include copyrighted images on your landing pages, just ask the creator if you can use the photograph. More times than not, the owner will be more than happy to grant usage permissions. In the event the creator denies your request, worry not; you can explore a variety of other choices. With the public domain, the Creative Commons (don’t forget to exercise caution), your local convention and visitor bureaus, and an abundance creative-licensed stock photos, you have the tools to optimize your website’s image strategy for online bookings. Finally, remember that Canva and PhotoShop are your friends; in just a few minutes, you can transform mediocre photographs into relevant and eye-catching images that work wonders for your website.

With this abundance of resources and tactics, there are countless ways to creatively and effectively tell your hotel’s story through images. By following the rules now, you can avoid some pretty substantial headaches down the road.

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